6 tips for taking family photos at the holidays

With friends and family getting together for the holidays, you'll probably have many chances to take photos that keep those memories from slipping away.

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With friends and family getting together for the holidays, you'll probably have many chances to take photos that keep those memories from slipping away.

And, if you have a smartphone in your pocket, you are ever-ready to capture those sweet/funny/embarrassing/endearing moments whenever they occur.

The cameras in these devices usually include an autofocus function which takes the guesswork out of getting a well-defined image, said photographer Shawna Noel Schill. They don't, however, allow you to control for F-stop and shutter speed.

Schill owns and operates Shawna Noel Photography in Grand Forks. She works as a full-time photographer and teaches a digital imaging class at UND.

"It's basically an iPhone class," she said.


If you have an Android smartphone, a Google search will yield photography recommendations, she said.

The best thing about shooting photos with your smartphone, Schill said, is "you get instant feedback."

The lenses in today's cellphones "are amazing," said Mark Trahant, Charles R. Johnson Professor of Journalism at UND. Considering the value of the equipment that's built in, "It's like you have an entire TV studio in your pocket."

He also noted, "The quality of what you can do with video, using a cell phone, is better than that of the Super 8 (camera) a generation ago."

The best apps

Trahant recommended several apps that can expand what you can do photographically with your device.

He suggested trying the Pano app "to make great panographs," which are several pictures combined into one, and VSCO and HD Camera apps, which yield higher-quality photographs.

Retro Camera renders photos that resemble Polaroid shots from the past, and Hyper Lapse makes it easy to take and use time lapse photos.



Here are a few tips that should help you take photos you'll be proud of:

  1. Experiment with exposure. Tap the screen of your iPhone and a square yellow outline and a "sunshine" icon will appear. Drag the icon up or down to increase or decrease the exposure, Schill said. The best way to learn, and get the level of exposure you want, is to "try it and play around with it."
  2. Shoot a lot of photos. That will give you a bunch of photos and poses to choose from, Schill said. "If you're afraid to take a lot (of photos), you (might) miss a moment. ... You can always delete them."
  3. Try out the "burst" mode. This is a great option for shooting anytime there's a lot of movement, as can be the case with kids, pets and sporting events. Hold the shutter button down to get multiple shots within a few seconds. Later, you can view each photo to find the exact moment you hoped to catch.
  4. Use both hands. Most people hold the smartphone with one hand, Schill said, but turning the device horizontally and steadying it with both hands "might give you a sharper photo." Using the volume control button can also trigger the camera, she said.
  5. Pay attention to lighting. Use natural light whenever possible, Schill said. "It yields the best photo." Avoid using the flash function. Avoid direct sunlight; it's harsh and causes your subjects to squint. The best lighting occurs in overcast conditions. If you're indoors, turn off the lights and try to shoot your subjects near a window to take advantage of natural light. You want to have only one light source, Schill said.
  6. Don't use the zoom. Both Schill and Trahant recommended against using the zoom function on smartphones. "There are only two times that can be used," Trahant said. "Never and never." Even though smartphones have a lot of great features, the zoom is not one of them, he said. "The quality is degraded." You'll get better results by moving closer to your subject.


Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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